Without permission

The Guardian published Shriver’s talk (uh oh will they get in trouble now?).

I’m afraid the bramble of thorny issues that cluster around “identity politics” has got all too interesting, particularly for people pursuing the occupation I share with many gathered in this hall: fiction writing. Taken to their logical conclusion, ideologies recently come into vogue challenge our right to write fiction at all…

The author of Who Owns Culture? Appropriation and Authenticity in American Law, Susan Scafidi, a law professor at Fordham University who for the record is white, defines cultural appropriation as “taking intellectual property, traditional knowledge, cultural expressions, or artifacts from someone else’s culture without permission. This can include unauthorised use of another culture’s dance, dress, music, language, folklore, cuisine, traditional medicine, religious symbols, etc.”

Hang on – what does that mean, “without permission”? It doesn’t mean anything, because how on earth does anyone know whom to ask for “permission” of that kind? Who is in a position to give such “permission”? No one. The fact that Scafidi is a law professor makes that phrase especially absurd. If there’s anything lawyers hate it’s a dangling meaningless requirement like that. (That’s me appropriating the experience of lawyers. I don’t actually know that that’s their top hate. I made that up.)

What does “unauthorised use” mean there? Again, nothing, because how can it? Authorised by whom? Who has the job of authorising people to use “another culture’s cuisine”? Absolutely no one has that job, and the claim is grotesque. We don’t need authorisation or permission to go to a Thai or Ethiopian or Brazilian restaurant to eat some fabulous interesting food. We don’t need authorisation or permission to listen to foreign music (and nearly all music is foreign to all of us, because all cultures have music) or wear foreign clothes or dance foreign dances. That claim is ridiculous and hideously xenophobic, though it doesn’t intend the latter. People in Delhi don’t need my permission to eat McDonald’s french fries, and I don’t need theirs to eat chole masala.

We get closer by sharing.

I do think people get to look askance at appropriation of their religious stuff, because that’s a different kind of thing. There are probably other kinds I’d agree should be done with care and tact if at all. But a sweeping taboo like the one from Susan Scafidi? Forget it.

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